Ohio Holocaust memorial tests separation of church and state
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'Jewish groups have long joined civil libertarians to oppose Christian symbols'

Ohio Holocaust memorial tests separation of church and state

In an ironic twist, the Daniel Libeskind design featuring a fractured Star of David is the epicenter of a ‘religious symbols on public land’ controversy

Renderings of the Ohio Holocaust memorial design. (photo credit: courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)
Renderings of the Ohio Holocaust memorial design. (photo credit: courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)

The state which staved off legal challenges to its statehouse display of the motto  — “With God, All Things Are Possible” — now faces controversy over the prominence of a Star of David in the design for a Holocaust memorial destined for the same grounds.

The memorial, which was designed by renowned Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind and will be installed at Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio, is reported to cost around $2 million.

Those costs will be paid by private funds, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based atheist organization, is criticizing the monument, citing “constitutional concerns.” The American Civil Liberties Union says it is reserving judgment while awaiting more detail on the context of the star.

Given the Star of David, the memorial could present a unique opportunity to test the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Salazar v. Buono, which established the legality of a cross on public lands memorializing soldiers who died in World War I, according to legal scholar Jonathan Turley.

“It was a splintered decision with three different rationales and a narrow margin of 5-4 on the Court,” says Turley, the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School. “However, unlike the Ohio case, the cross was not put on the property by order of the government and had been at the location for decades.”

Since there are a variety of non-Judaism-specific ways to address the Holocaust aesthetically, the Ohio memorial could lead to a slippery slope toward Christian groups calling crosses “memorials” and adding them to public areas, he adds.

‘This case could further lower the wall of separation of church and state if successful’

“Jewish groups have long joined civil libertarians to oppose Christian symbols on the basis of separation of powers principles,” Turley says. “This case could further lower the wall of separation of church and state if successful. It is an ironic twist given the purpose of reminding people of the threat of abuse of minority groups by the government. That symbol itself can only be maintained by expanding the ability of the government to embrace religious symbols.”

The controversy surrounding the memorial was compounded recently when former State Senate President Richard H. Finan, the departing chair of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, ordered statehouse staff to display a to-scale mock-up of the monument constructed of pipes, ropes, and a tarp, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

Libeskind’s wife Nina told the Dispatch that both she and her husband were “very disappointed” by the “very cynical” mock-up. “It is a clear attempt to show what is not real and subvert the process. This is not what we presented,” she said.

‘All one has to do now is go to the governor and say, ‘I want a statue of Donald Duck on the Statehouse grounds’ and if he gets convinced of it, boom!’

This is not Finan’s first controversial statement in response to the memorial. In April 2012, a disgruntled Finan claimed his agency was bypassed in the planning stage and said to the Dispatch, “All one has to do now is go to the governor and say, ‘I want a statue of Donald Duck on the Statehouse grounds’ and if he gets convinced of it, boom!”

The memorial was first commissioned by John Kasich (R-Ohio), who was so moved by the Annual Governor’s Holocaust Commemoration on May 4, 2011 that he called upon the Jewish community to develop a monument, says Joyce Garver Keller, the executive director of the Ohio Jewish Communities, which represents the state’s eight Jewish federations.

“We responded enthusiastically to the governor’s proposal as an opportunity to expand Holocaust education in Ohio,” she says, noting that the project’s mission statement emphasizes not just educating legislators and statehouse visitors about the history of the Holocaust, but also about evil at large.

‘The Holocaust did not begin in concentration camps… it began in the halls of government with the passage of laws that targeted Jews’

“The Holocaust did not begin in concentration camps, in ovens with smokestacks, in mass graves,” Keller says. “It began in the halls of government with the passage of laws that targeted Jews, taking their property, their homes, their freedom, and their lives.”

Inscribed on a limestone wall in the proposed memorial will be a statement commending Ohio soldiers who helped liberate concentration camps, as well as survivors who moved to Ohio, according to Keller. It will also be dedicated to the memory “of six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, and political dissidents who suffered under Nazi Germany,” she adds.

The six-pointed star in the memorial is based on the yellow star which is “a symbol of the Holocaust,” according to Keller.

Ori Soltes, a professorial lecturer at Georgetown University and author of “The Ashen Rainbow: The Arts and the Holocaust,” agrees that there’s more to the six-pointed star than just religious symbolism.

“The Star of David, of course, has a long, pre-Jewish history; it is the meeting of realms, of heaven and earth, of male and female. In the context of the 20th century, however, and in particular of the Holocaust, it is distinctly identifiable as a Jewish symbol,” says Soltes, a former director and chief curator at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum. “But it is by no means a religious symbol.”

‘The Star of David, of course, has a long, pre-Jewish history; it is the meeting of realms, of heaven and earth, of male and female’

The Nazis viewed Judaism as a “race” or “ethnicity,” so the invocation of the star in the Libeskind memorial “is almost certainly to signify the Jews and Judaism, but not in the narrow, religious sense,” Soltes says.

Given the location of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on federal land in Washington, DC, Soltes says it’s difficult for him to view the proposed memorial as an inappropriate addition to the statehouse grounds.

Asked to evaluate the quality of the design, Soltes cautioned against judging the memorial fully based only on preparatory drawings, but he says it will likely be dramatic.

“The symbolism of a six-pointed star torn apart — and yet not, in that it’s actually not the star but the panels around it that are torn asunder, and thus as a symbol of both destruction and survival — it seems perfectly appropriate,” he says. “If the star is actually blue… that adds another dimension of traditional art historical symbolism: the blue of the sky and of truth, associated with divinity; the God who was absent for some and emphatically present for others at Auschwitz.

A view of the Ohio Holocaust memorial in context with the statehouse. (photo credit: courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)
A view of the Ohio Holocaust memorial in context with the statehouse. (photo credit: courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)
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